AFRL student challenges inspire innovation

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Teams of emerging scientists and engineers are developing solutions to some of the Air Force’s most challenging problems, thanks to an Air Force Research Laboratory competition that harnesses the talents of students and cadets from throughout the country.

The AFRL University and Service Academy Challenges are annual competitions that task university and service academy students to exercise their engineering skills to solve a problem of importance to the Air Force. This year’s challenges asked participants to build a prototype system to locate personnel during an active threat and/or building collapse in an educational, office, shopping, or multi-room facility, and integrate data streams to provide first responders with real-time information.

Student capstone teams were presented with scenarios that ranged from finding a person buried under rubble, to searching for an abducted child in an Amber Alert situation, to locating an armed suspect and innocent bystanders in an active shooter situation. These scenarios required students to identify obscured people and, in some cases, discern between friendly and non-friendly actors.

“Our goal is to tap into the creative energies and thought processes of the students,” said AFRL Senior Materials Engineer and Service Academy Chief Judge, Dr. Brett Bolan. “By rising to the challenge of these scenarios, these soon-to-be engineers not only learn more about their own abilities, but get a feel for what it is like working with and for the Air Force.”

Over the course of their senior year, the student and cadet teams worked to develop their solutions, interviewing subject matter experts, researching customer needs, and investigating components they could integrate into their projects, including commercial-off-the-shelf products. Ultimately, the teams demonstrated their projects at the Northwest Florida State College campus in Niceville, Floriad, in a representative indoor environment that local law enforcement use for training.

The team from the University of Minnesota Duluth was chosen as this year’s University winner. Their solution integrated a suite of highly-effective technologies including a novel low-cost microwave motion detector with a Doppler radar for motion detection and a borescope that provided the command post with situational awareness.

The cadets of the United States Military Academy at Westpoint won the Service Academy Challenge with a simple but highly-effective cell phone detector that could potentially be matured into a commercial product for the law enforcement community.

“The projects this year were just incredible,” said Challenge judge Mickey Wright. “In all my experience, this was the hardest decision we had in choosing a winner. These students rose to the challenge of developing something that can effect change in a real-world environment.”

Wright said Challenge participants were encouraged to develop products that could be capable of immediate implementation, perhaps even in their own institutions.  He said the products that resulted were extremely well-though-out, even impressing judges and the component manufacturers the teams consulted.

Josh Osborne, Senior Engineer for Test Capabilities Integration, Arnold Engineering Development Complex said that the challenges are valuable to both the project participants and the Air Force in many ways. Beyond the obvious benefit of addressing an Air Force-relevant problem, it also gives students insight into the research methodology of a working engineer.

“This challenge greatly increases readiness for future engineers entering the workforce by guiding them through all facets of an engineering task, from interfacing with customers and their needs, to incorporating solutions to those needs into a fully developed working prototype,” said Osborne. “This year, like every year, the problem statement was broad enough to allow the future engineers to develop a wide range of innovative solutions.”

Arnold Engineering Development Center Test Capabilities Integration Chief Devon Parker added that the challenges offer participants a clearer view of life as a working engineer.

“With this challenge, we give these students a real-world problem where they may encounter shifting or ambiguous requirements rather than the typical homework scenario that drives them toward a point solution,” said Parker. “This more closely resembles the problems they will tackle when they enter the workforce and prepares them to be innovative, problem-solving engineers. I’ve participated in these competitions since 2011, and I’m always amazed at what these students accomplish simply because no one is around telling them what they can’t do.”

Organizers are already working to develop topics for the next Challenges, which will be announced in the fall. Potential participants interested in learning more about the AFRL University and Service Academy Challenges can visit